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The visible effects of love







Love is an innate human quality, and one which is alluded to by many poets.  Great writers and poets have often depicted love as powerful, passionate, and attainable.  William Butler Yeats takes this to a much deeper level, and pay’s homage to love through his use of intimate sensual imagery.  However, Yeats reveals the characteristics of love in a new light, one which focus’s upon the impact of love on the human condition.  In his poems, When You Are Old, Leda And The Swan, and The Wild Swans At Coole, Yeats expresses love in terms of unattainable illusion which is desired, but never obtained.  Through his use of idealistic creatures, illusionary passion, and description of physical deterioration, Yeats redefines love with a much darker connotation.


Love is characterized through ability to evoke passion, create eternal fulfillment, and essentially “make the world go around”. Yeats’s redefinition of love in a darker connotation begins with his use of vivid sensual imagery, and repetition of words associated with love.  The use of vivid sensual imagery in Leda and the Swan, such as the image of two hearts beating, and the caressing of body parts taints the poem with an illusionary passion. 


                         The feathered glory from her loosening thighs?

                        And how can the body, laid in that white rush,

                       But feel the strange heart beating where it lies?


Yeats addresses the stereotypes of love, the heartfelt passion, the sexual imagery, in a satirical passion.  The repetitive use of words such as passion and love in When You Are Old, contribute to a subtle allusion to the physical attributes of love as a superficial entity. 

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim Soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;


The stylistic techniques of repetition and satirical imagery may be linked to Yeats’s mystical background.  When dealing with love in his poems, Yeats focuses on the mystics and more on the metaphysical aspects of love.  The physical aspects of love are expressed in a new light, one of shallowness and a lacking of fulfillment. 


When analyzing the characteristics of love, we see it requires an emotional connection between two individuals.  In his poems Leda And The Swan, and The Wild Swans At Coole, Yeats describes passion and love being exchanged and fulfilled between swans.  The use of swans as beautiful, passionate, and graceful by nature reflects upon a longing for love, and it’s inability to satisfy the human condition.  His decision to express love between swans, and not humans contributes to how love is more of a longing opposed to a fulfillment for human beings.  In Leda And The Swan, one gets the impression of a placid human observer who expresses an unhealthy voyeurism as he can only watch love being experienced between swans.  The poem Leda and The Swan is a direct allusion to the Greek myth where Leda a human, was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan.  The myth could allude to many things, such as Yeats’s own frustrations with love.  The poem can be interpreted as Yeats's own particular rape fantasy, in which Maud Gonne is Leda and Yeats himself, the Zeus-like swan.  Yeats was never able to express his love for Gonne and as a result he developed a bitter resentment towards love and its inability to fulfill its visible expectations. 

The Wild Swans At Coole, also portrays the inability of human beings to obtain fulfillment through love.  The same device as used in Leda and the Swan, the spectator/narrator device, which draws the reader into the action and poem. In the poem, Yeats compares two visits that he made to Coole Park in County Galway, one in 1897 and the second in 1916. This wooded park was located near the country estate of Lady Gregory and near the site of Yeats's summer home[1]. Observing swans at a pond, the narrator laments about the beauty portrayed by the Swans, and how their ability to feel have not changed, while the narrator feels the effects of his advancing age.


Old age is a tool Yeats uses to convey the darker characteristics of love, and their ability to poison the human condition.  With old age comes an inevitable physical deterioration, as well as a longing for love.  The message delivered in When You Are Old  is the ability of love to shut out the fulfillment of the quiet deteriorating old man, which brings a new cold aspect of love upon the human condition.  With old age comes a new yearning for love, as the old man recollects of “how love fled”, and must resort to seeing through his “old eyes”. 


                    And bending down beside the glowing bars,

                    Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

                    And paced upon the mountains overhead

                    And hid his face amid a crowd of stars


The characteristics of love may fulfill the hearts of the young, but short chains the elderly, whom Yeats shares an emotional bond with.  Yeats’s greatest poetry was written when he himself was old, as most of his works were written in his late fifty’s.  The poem itself is a short three stanza poem which follows a simple rhyme scheme.  In it’s simplicity, however, Yeat’s portrays an eternal longing, which may or may not be autobiographical.  The poem itself can be interpreted as the climax of Yeats’s personal struggle with old age and love.


Yeats depiction of love in his poems challenges the traditional conceptions of love, which include ideas of fulfillment, passion, and the human condition.  Yeats creates the notion that love and passion is a mere illusion marked with superficiality.  His use of repetition and sensual imagery evokes questioning within the reader on whether or not love is attainable.  Yeats use of the graceful swan, and its ability to express and obtain the passions longed for by the human observer.  As well as the mythical reference to Zeus and Leda, which demonstrates the lucid fantasy’s of the human observer.  The Zeus Leda fantasy may perhaps be the very fantasy generated by Yeats towards Maude Gonne, and his frustrations of personal expression.  Finally the descriptions of physical deterioration, and torturous longings of old age, reveal the evils of love and its inability to universally fulfill.  Yeats also may be reflecting personal allusions, as he himself was experiencing the hindrance of old age, many of his poems were written in his later years of life.  When analyzing loves visible effects, passion as an illusion, the painful longings, and unattainable fulfillment, the characteristics of love resemble a hatred shared by Yeats, as well as the rest of society. 

[1]  Wild Swans at Coole, The,  URL = < > Copyright © 1997 Encyclopćdia Britannica, Inc. All Rights Reserved.